Multiple-Choice Tests Hinder Critical Thinking. Should They Be Used in Science Classes?

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination.

This article originally appeared in the Newton blog on RealClearScience. You can read the original here


Meandering into the lecture hall, you take note of the atmosphere. The air is still. But for the faint sounds of shuffling pages, trackpad clicks, and anxiety-laced whispering, the room is silent. You take a seat, separated from your nearest classmate by an empty chair. At face value, the gulf seems superficial, and yet, when the tests are passed out, that distance will become insurmountable. Don't talk. That's cheating! It will be just you, the test, and the bubbles on the answer sheet. Those cursed bubbles...

Anyone who's ever taken a large science class in college is well acquainted with the multiple-choice test. Ingenius in its simplicity, the test comprises a set number of questions, each with a short list of responses. It's up to the test-taker to determine which is correct. Here's an example:

1. Which of the following is one of the major approaches to psychology?

a. psychoanalysis 
b. structuralism 
c. psychiatry 
d. New Age Movement

The testing strategy has been utilized for decades, with few alterations and a tacit resignation to the status quo. To professors, it's an easy, objective, and efficient way to gauge the material comprehension of large numbers of students. To students, though they may view the method as cold and unforgiving, it's a universal standard -- one they're accustomed to -- and it offers a genuine chance to guess the correct answer.

Critics contend that multiple-choice tests only encourage two things: rote memorization and hand-eye coordination. (Filling in tiny bubbles is deceptively difficult.) Since science is not about memorizing and regurgitating facts, why should future scientists be judged in such a fashion?

Compared to memorization, Professor Kathrin Stanger-Hall of the University of Georgia believes that critical thinking skills are far more useful to aspiring scientists, and to students, in general. But sadly, college is seriously inept at teaching these skills. A 2011 study found that 46% of college students did not gain critical-thinking skills during their first two years of college, and 36% had not gained critical-thinking skills after 4 years. Stanger-Hall theorizes that multiple-choice tests contributed to these dismal statistics. In 2012, she tried out a little experiment on two sections of her Introductory Biology class.

Though each section was taught in an identical fashion, one section (consisting of 282 students) was assessed using the traditional multiple-choice-only format, while another (192 students) was assessed with "mixed" mid-term exams of 30 multiple-choice questions and three to four constructed response questions, such as short answer, fill-in-the-blank, or diagram labeling. At the end of the year, each section took final exams that shared 90 of the same multiple-choice questions. Their scores on these questions were compared.

After correcting for students' grade point average, Stanger-Hall found that students in the "mixed" exam section scored significantly higher on the 90 multiple-choice questions than did students in the multiple-choice only section: 67.35% vs. 64.23%. Upon closer examination, Stanger-Hall determined that the difference was mostly due to the fact that students in the "mixed" section firmly outstripped those in the multiple-choice section on higher-level thinking multiple choice questions: 64.4% vs. 59.54%.

"The purpose of this study was to assess whether a multiple-choice-only exam format might hinder the development of higher-level (critical) thinking skills in introductory science students. The answer is a convincing yes," Stanger-Hall summed up (emphasis hers).

According to Stanger-Hall, replacing a significant portion of multiple-choice questions with constructed response questions would be a "cost-effective strategy to significantly improve the critical-thinking skills of college students." But her recommendation is not the only viable option. Social psychologist Joann M. Montepare -- who's taught college classes for 15 years -- urges a slightly different approach, one that she's already put into practice with great success. Multiple-choice tests, she says, are a great evaluative tool. But like any tool, they must be well crafted and correctly employed. Montepare described her creative assessment methods in the October 2005 edition of The Observer:

"Students come to class prepared as they would be for any other multiple-choice exam, take the exam, and then they take it home and review each question to assess whether their answer was indeed the best one. Students can use class notes, readings, and even discuss the questions with their classmates (indeed such collaboration is encouraged). As they do so, they can change their answers. Students return exams during the next class period and the self-corrected version determines their final grade, as follows. For each correct answer (no change) students receive full credit. For each corrected answer (wrong to right), students receive half-credit. Incorrect answers — originally wrong and unchanged, or changed to wrong — receive no credit."

Perhaps the largest benefit of Montepare's method is this: Instead of focusing on memorizing material beforehand, students actively research and collaborate to not only find, but also understand the answers. That sounds a lot more like how science is done.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.